APM East of England event, MedImmune, Cambridge, 12th November 2013
Issues facing ‘far flung’ teams
Melanie Boyle, our host at MedImmune, welcomed us to the meeting and to a topic, which was very relevant to the geographically dispersed teams that she works with.
‘Far flung’ teams have a magnified version of the challenges faced by any project team. How can such teams best juggle the people, content, and processes which, being dispersed, suffer from the difficulties of building relationships, addressing different cultures, pulling together disparate local processes, and ensuring that the content at the heart of the project is available and complete?
Whilst a clear goal can help, it can suffer from ‘chinese whispers’. Likewise, a robust underpinning technology, is often not that robust.
So, what’s to be done?
The 3 speakers shared their experiences and ‘war stories from the diverse backgrounds of pharma / biotech, offshoring / finance / telecommuniations, engineering / biotech respectively. We interspersed each session with rapid ‘huddle’ discussions between the delegates.
Janette Thomas, Accentbio Ltd
Janette’s ‘war story’ stressed the value of one-to-one discussions to clarify roles and negotiate timelines. She used face-to-face meetings to build relationships and to help people recognise their interdependencies. She also used visual representations of simplified project plans to aid understanding.
Points raised included:
- The importance of addressing the human factor early, preferably through a face-to-face, or using very good video conferencing technology.
- Consider the nature of the team for how you do this, and also how high risk the project is.
- Keep repeating the goals throughout the project to ensure alignment.
- Test assumptions and make sure you are using language that everyone understands.
When working with India it is important to have recognisable e-mail addresses as they can be quite different from a person’s name. Create a directory of team members with photographs to help recognition.
Ask people to respect the ‘golden hours’ that are the optimum time for cross-team communication.
Have e-mail guidelines including what goes in the subject line to ensure necessary actions are clear and acted upon in a timely way.
There are lots of cultural issues to be aware of!
Offshore vs. onshore decisions need to be based on the right premises – otherwise there is a risk of false economies.
Russel finished with a lovely YouTube video “I’ll get the ice creams”
- It is challenging to know when everything is not alright as people will not necessarily tell you.
- Make your communications clear and unambiguous.
- Jokes can get in the way as the interpretation will be very cultural!
Keith Rodgers, Inspirex Ltd
Keith shared analogies with Voyager 1, a space probe that was launched in 1977 and which reached interstellar space in 2012. This makes it a very long project, operating with ‘ancient’ technology, and raising all sorts of challenges about communication.
People were asked to consider alternative approaches for organising portfolio reviews for a small engineering project, and a mid-sized biotech – both operating with geographically dispersed stakeholders.
Points raised included:
- Setting meeting frequency and timing in a way that would share the ‘pain’ to reduce the inconvenience to stakeholders.
- Making the objectives clear so that people could prepare and ensure that the right people were present for the meetings.
- Using KPIs and reports to stakeholders as an additional source of information to supplement meetings
Closing panel discussion
We covered many points throughout this event. Some of these points are reflected in this adapted version of a Harvard Business Review article.
Further discussion included:
- How best to delegate across different cultures? Our speakers suggested bringing team members to the UK for training, although the people trained might then use that knowledge elsewhere; communicating in terms that people can understand, and building relationships; having clear contracts and summaries of agreed work.
- Is it easier for different cultures to say ‘no’ in written formats? Our speakers did not think that would make a difference, but that building relationships might so that you can more easily pick up on how someone is responding (tone in their voice on the phone) that might indicate disagreement. Also, ensuring that you are speaking the right person: if they are senior enough they may be more comfortable with saying ‘no’.
The original presentations from this APM East of England event along with an audio recording, and the full notes of the ‘huddle’ discussions are available to members on the Community web page for the APM East of England branch at http://www.apm.org.uk/news/working-far-flung-teams
Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that helps business teams to enhance their effectiveness for greater productivity and improved team morale. Elisabeth has 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry where she has held line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis. Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and in Lean Sigma and is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals), and APM (Association for Project Management). She is also a registered and approved Growth Coach for the GrowthAccelerator.